LAWMAKERS in Spain’s lower house of parliament, the Congress of Deputies, today voted in favour of reforms to the controversial ‘only yes means yes’ consent law, after it had the unexpected effect of seeing convicted sex offenders freed early from jail or have their sentences reduced. 

The legislation, which came into effect in October, was drafted by the Equality Ministry, which is run by the junior partner in the coalition government, leftist party Unidas Podemos. 

The reforms that were approved today in Congress were proposed by the senior partner in the government, the Socialist Party. To do so, the group sought and secured the support of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), as well as centre-right Citizens and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), among other groups.

The move by the Socialists, who were responding to the public outcry over the effects of the consent law, was bitterly opposed by Unidas Podemos, and has served to drive a further wedge between the coalition partners in a year that will see local and regional elections on May 28 and a general election sometime around December. 

The Socialists and Unidas Podemos have recently clashed not just over the consent law, but also legislation covering housing, animal welfare, trans rights and Spain’s so-called ‘gag law’. 

Two of the four ministers that Unidas Podemos counts on in the Spanish Cabinet, party leader Ione Belarra and Equality Minister Irene Montero, struck lonely figures during the debate in Congress on Thursday, sitting together on an empty front bench during the parliamentary proceedings without the company of their Socialist colleagues.

Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Pedro Sanchez was absent, having opted to make a visit to the wetlands of the Doñana National Park on Thursday. 

Ahead of the vote, Montero addressed the chamber to say that today was the ‘most difficult’ day she had faced ‘in this parliament and during this term for all feminists’, and that the changes were ‘a step back’ for the laws covering sexual assault. 

She also called on the Socialist Party to scrap its plans and argued that no deal reached with the PP could be positive for women.

The reform to the law will now be sent to the Senate for approval, where it could be approved as early as next week. 

The changes to the law approved today by Congress include a change to the range of sentences that can be applied for sexual assault with violence and intimidation. Instead of the current four to 12 years for rape offenses, the minimum will be increased to six years. 

Early releases

The ‘Full Guarantee of Sexual Freedom Act’, to give the original law its full name, was drawn up by the Equality Ministry in the wake of the infamous rape case at the 2016 Running of the Bulls fiesta in Pamplona. 

Under the new law, consent must be explicitly given and cannot be assumed to have been granted either by default or with silence. The legislation also removed the distinction between sexual abuse and sexual assault – i.e. rape – by making consent the deciding factor. 

Problems arose due to the change in definition of offences, and their associated minimum and maximum prison sentences in the case of a conviction. 

Minimum sentences were lowered by the law, in general, in the absence of aggravating circumstances. The changes led to a flood of requests by lawyers in the courts for their clients’ sentences to be reviewed, with nearly a thousand sex offenders’ sentences lowered so far and more than a hundred freed early from prison

This is because under Spanish law any change to the minimum sentence for an offence can be applied retroactively, and judges usually rule in favour of the convict in such cases. 

Since the controversy first broke out late last year, Unidas Podemos has insisted the law did not need changing and even blamed judges for failing to properly apply it. 

While the Socialist Party initially backed its junior coalition partner, it has since changed tack and bowed to political pressure to table the reforms approved today

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went so far on Sunday to apologise to citizens for the unexpected effects of the ‘only yes means yes’ law, asking ‘for forgiveness from the victims’.

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